Thursday, May 28, 2015

"This inability to think created the possibilities for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale" Chenault and Dunleavy - Meet Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a refugee from Nazi Germany who had studied philosophy (and also had a long affair) with Martin Heidiger, getting out of Europe in 1941 to the US where she taught at various top ranked universities.  I had read her book The Human Condition as a grad student and was inspired by her discussion of the public and private realms to explore the concept of privacy in my doctoral dissertation.

So, when I saw a movie entitled Hannah Arendt listed on Netflix, I wondered how her life could fit into a two hour movie.

The movie focuses on her coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961 and the publication of her reports in The New Yorker along with the backlash to some things she said in the articles.  Let me say early on here, that I'm no Arendt expert and a lot of my response is based on the woman portrayed in the movie, plus some follow up online at  here  and  here.  Having grown up with German-Jewish refugees in the US, I have a familiarity with that world as well, though the California settlers do seem to be quite different from those who stayed on the East Coast. 

There are a number of things that struck me as a I watched the film.  And of course the film touched on these topics very lightly and so do I.  But they are interesting starting points to pursue more. 

1.  Her ability to separate herself from the situation when she views people and interactions among people and to probe while suspending judgment.  As she says in the film,
"Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness."  
This is significant in the film because people become outraged at their perception that she excuses Eichmann (on the grounds that he's just an ordinary, not particularly bright man and not a sociopath) and because she says that without some Jewish leaders' cooperation, there would have been fewer Jews who died.  To Arendt, this is merely unjudgmental fact of significant interest for anyone trying to understand the Holocaust.

2.  Her notion of 'the banality of evil' hinted at in 1. above.  Her observations of Eichmann in the trial came as a revelation to her, because he was so ordinary.  He had absorbed the Nazi propaganda and had let go of his own individuality and decision making powers and became an instrument of the Nazis.
"I hold no defense of Eichmann, but I did try to reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds. . . Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think, consequently he was no longer capable of making normal judgments.  This inability to think created the possibilities for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which one has never seen before." [emphasis added.]
"The trouble with criminalizing a Nazi like Eichmann was that he insisted in renouncing all personal qualities and it was as if there was nobody left to be either punished or forgiven.  He protested time and again, contrary to the prosecution's assertion, that he had never done anything out of his own initiative.  That he had no intention whatsoever, good or bad, that he had only obeyed orders.  The typical Nazi plea makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobody."

3.  Her point seems to be that this goes far beyond Eichmann and beyond Germany.  People give themselves up to world views, values, and beliefs of the dominant culture and just go along without any moral assessment of their actions.
"And not only in Germany, but in almost all countries.  Not only among the persecutor, but also among the victims." 
This last part is what upset so many people.  Her character says that if the Jews hadn't been organized and their leaders hadn't cooperated, fewer Jews would have died.  They too had been indoctrinated into following orders.  This idea also reminds me of the concept of internalized racism that infects the victims as well as the beneficiaries of racism in a society.  

4.  Points 2 and 3 (which overlap a lot) shout at me to explore how this might help us understand how that might be in play in today's world.  I raise that possibility gingerly, because, as in the case of Arendt and her article, people will likely misread it.  In Arendt's case, it was to see her as excusing Eichmann and blaming the Jews for their own demise.  In this case, some people will surely miss the finer points and see me comparing people today to Nazis.  That's not what I'm doing.  Rather I'm taking the notion of 'the banality of evil' that Arendt coined by studying Eichmann at his trial, and wondering how that might apply to the US today, and particularly to Alaska.

So, how might it apply?

Dunleavy, HB 44 - Erin's Law

Having just last week attended the Senate Education Committee's hearing on HB 44, I immediately thought of the total disconnect between what I saw and what the chair, Sen. Dunleavy said.  How might Arendt's thoughts fit here?

Dunleavy, for one thing, never acknowledged the possibility that what he was doing to Erin's Law (the original HB 44) might mean that there would be kids who would not be exposed to sexual abuse awareness, and thus when they were exposed to an abuser, would not know what was happening, how to respond, and how to report so it could end (if it did start) quickly.  He acknowledged no link between his actions and the fact that more kids would be abused because of his actions.   He even derided people who suggested he was even complicit in kids being sexually abused.

This sounds similar to me to the way Eichmann said he was merely doing his job, making sure people got on the trains.  He separated that task from the idea of where the trains were going and what would happen to the people at their destination.  It seemed to me that Dunleavy was doing something similar.  In his mind, he wasn't 'gutting' HB 44 as people charged.  Rather he was adding language about parental rights (and other things) that in themselves were good, without a sense of the effect these changes would have on watering down Erin's Law, on jeopardizing the passing of the bill altogether, and on the outcome of fewer kids getting abuse awareness training and thus ending up abused.  (Of course, only a relatively small number of kids who would get the training would be exposed to abuse. [updated:  actually the numbers people cite are one in four girls and one in six boys, so that would be not so small a number.]  But the numbers reported were still disturbingly high, so it wouldn't be insignificant.)

Of course, there's the possibility that he knows exactly what he's doing and he's lying, but I suspect not.  It's easy for people to call others liars because they can't believe they don't think exactly the way they think.  The more nuanced approach that Arendt takes requires more concentration and mental agility to comprehend.

Is there a different option than 'not too bright' and 'liar' that I'm missing?  Dunleavy has not offered an explanation that covers all the holes that I see as listed in this post.  He does have a lengthy FB defense, but it really doesn't address the details I raise.  Instead it just says things like other states don't make the training mandatory so what are you complaining about.  It doesn't address the issue of kids falling between the cracks because it's not mandatory and because it cuts out k-6.  Interestingly, he also seems to have dropped all the parental-rights rhetoric, but maybe I just missed it.

Chenault And The Budget

In this case, we could take Arendt's concepts to portray Chenault's world view as so pro-oil, his majority in the House so big, and his leadership power so strong, that he simply never has to think about the consequences of what he is doing.  Like Eichmann, his education is weak (though he did graduate from high school.)  I don't suspect he had many probing high school classes that forced him to deeply consider opposing points of view or how to think critically.  Instead, he mouths the slogans fed to him by the oil company lobbyists (all of whom are much better educated than Chenault) and groups like the Koch brothers supported Americans for Prosperity who tell him how smart he is, and what a good job he's doing, and how what he is doing is in the best interests of the people of Alaska.  He doesn't have to think.  (Think in the philosophical sense of pondering big questions that put his actions into a longer term and larger context, questioning what he takes for granted, considering the moral implications of what he's doing.)  To those who challenge him, he can respond, "If you're so smart, why am I Speaker of the House and you're out there whining?" A good question.  I'd respond:  "Because he thinks he's in the legislature and he's speaker all on his own merits, and not because his oil and construction industry supporters haven't greased the wheels for him.  He thinks they are supporting him because he's got the right values, not because he's absorbed the values they want him to have."

I'm not saying this is 'truth.'  I'm saying this is what Arendt's model suggests could be true. 

Can We Trust Arendt's Models?

I don't think we need to trust them or not.  Rather they are tools for measuring the world we see.  We use models to take measure of the world. It suggests things we should consider in our assessment. Does it accurately reflect what is happening?  If we gather the facts, do they line up as the model predicts?  Or is the model making us sort the facts to see what we expect to see?

Arendt's concept of the banality of evil has similarities to other concepts such as mob behavior or herd mentality;  such as group think and other situations where people give up their moral responsibility to the people around them.  We see echoes in The Lord of the Flies  and in 1984 and in Madmen  and The Sopranos.  The Milgram Experiments are another example that stem from Eichmann's trial, though, as this article states, Arendt said they showed something different than she was getting at.

There are lots of nuances here and getting inside people's heads to read their intentions isn't something I've figured out how to do well.  And there are problems with what people tell us they intended.
  • They can be deceptive.  
  • They can be wrong.  
  • They might not know themselves.

So What Do We Do?

  • The Believers
    • We can listen to people respectfully and let them explain themselves as much as they are willing or able to do.  This gives us some insights.  Asking probing questions might yield more.  We aren't likely to cause believers to change any more they are likely to cause us to change.  Though when we interact respectfully it does change our relationship and allows people to consider each other more authentically.   (A study that seemed to confirm this approach when used to change the minds of people who voted against gay marriage in California, appears  to have been faked.  But the problems with that study don't mean this technique doesn't work.  But that study that seemed to validate the idea apparently can't be used now to do so.)
  • Those Who Think Everyone Is Equally Corrupted
    • There are lots of folks who have simply given up on everyone.  They've dropped out of serious participation and rejected their responsibilities, as citizens, to be informed and to vote.  These folks can be reached.  Mostly they would like to believe that democracy works and just need some examples of how they can have a positive impact.  Again, listening is the best tool.  Ask them to explain how they got to their conclusions.  Is there anything that could happen to change their minds?  What are the consequences of doing nothing?  And so on.   Grab a set of examples of people who have accomplished things against the odds.  For a quickly googled example.  I'm sure you can find ones more relevant to your cause.  And these folks have much to teach the political process believers as well.
  • Those Who Unthinkingly Are On Your Side
    • I find automatic believers of any group problematic.  They often have only the sketchiest idea of why they are supporting or opposing something.  It might be part of the dogma or something they read (without checking) that supports their world view.  It's important to shake up people who automatically support your position, but do so without thinking. 


  1. In order to understand why these types exhibit a lot of the behaviors that seem to be directly in conflict with actual positive benefits, you must apply animal behavior concepts as well as philosophical ideals, towards motivation and action of individuals. Humans are group animals. We are hard wired to be part of the crowd, to dislike change, to not be too different, at the same time we are hugely conflicted with the advantages of imagination, forethought, and the ability to choose differently. Causes lots of problems, but also made us the advanced "intelligent" cough, species on the planet.

  2. Yes, Hedgewytch, I agree. Biology underlies all we do. I did mention 'herd mentality' but I think your point puts it all into a yet larger context. Thanks.


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